October is Black History Month, when we honour the accomplishments of Black Britons throughout history who have so often gone unrecognised and uncelebrated.
The Black History Month 2022 website is packed with information, opinions and resources to mark this important month in our calendar. It includes a moving article written by Akilah Walker who explains why it is so important to recognise that Black history is not my history or your history but our history.
Akilah who describes her mother as “the epitome of the ‘strong Black woman’” writes that by the time she was 10 years old, she had visited the International Slavery Museum multiple times, visited forts in Jamaica left over from colonisation and participated in Slavery Remembrance Day as a performer.
She believes that Black History Month provides an opportunity to celebrate not only the figureheads of the Civil Rights Movement, like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, but to acknowledge the many less well-known (but no less significant) people and moments from Black history.
Akilah was reminded poignantly of this when she was reading a study report for work. It mentioned the use of HeLa cells in an experiment. HeLa stands for Henrietta Lacks – a Black woman from the USA who had cells taken from her during a biopsy for cervical cancer in 1951. Without her permission, these cells were later used in medical research – in the development of the HPV vaccine, to test the polio vaccine and sent into space by NASA to test the effects of zero gravity. Akilah points out that four Nobel Prizewinning scientists have used HeLa cells in their work and these cells continue to be used even today.
It is just one example of the ways that the whole world has benefited from Black history. As Martin Luther King Jr said “We are not the makers of history. We are made by history.”
Teaching children about our history is important. In relation to Black history, in particular, it may help them to give them particular insights into human qualities like resilience, courage and morality, as well as more negative traits like cruelty, greed and inhumanity. These stories have never been more important or relevant for young people than in our challenging modern times. They can help to inspire and encourage children who may have been through difficult times themselves, or still be going through them.
Stories like Harriet Tubman (1822-1913), who was born into slavery but escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and subsequently made 13 missions to rescue around 70 enslaved people including family and friends. Her story can teach young people about qualities like courage, perseverance and determination.
Or Ruby Bridges who attended the all-white William Frantz Elementary School a few blocks from her home in Louisiana – the first African American child ever to do so. Ruby and her mother were escorted by four federal marshals to school every day for a year, passing angry crowds who shouted insults at them. Only one teacher, Barbara Henry, was willing to teach Ruby so she sat in class alone. She continued to attend school despite all of the challenges. In 1999, Ruby established The Ruby Bridges Foundation to promote tolerance and create change in education. A year later she was made an honorary deputy marshal in Washington DC.
Her story is a great example of courage and determination, which may strike a particular chord with children who have experienced or are experiencing bullying and discrimination. Stories like this can also help children learn to appreciate things that they may take for granted – such as going to school.
Black History Months helps children to learn that they can change the world even in the face of injustice and seemingly insurmountable challenge. That is a lesson that is inspiring and important for all young people, irrespective of their life circumstances.
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